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In Voice We Search

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It’s only a matter of time before we are using voice search to look for a restaurant, book a flight or order groceries online, says John Ring.

When you want to ask a friend or a colleague a question you generally talk to them. Vocal communication has been central to human development for quite a while. We use our voices to communicate our ideas and find out what we want to know. In the past the one area where verbal communication didn’t dominate was online. If you wanted to find something using Google etc you were restricted to typing in the search term and receiving back a series of written results. Text works great if you’re working on a computer but it’s not the most natural way to communicate and difficult to do if you’re travelling or multi-tasking.

Science-Fact

The number of virtual assistants and smart home devices sold is set to grow exponentially in the year ahead. Google are promoting both Google Home and Google Assistant, while Siri, Amazon Echo, and Microsoft Cortana still take a sizeable share of the voice search and AI market. The idea of a totally voice-operated future has been the dream of science fiction writers for decades, but now it seems to be moving towards science-fact.

We may not be quite at the stage of a completely voice operated home yet but there was a 35-fold increase in voice search between 2008 and 2017. In 2017 over 40 percent of adults were using voice-based search daily. Leading to the strong possibility that the number of daily voice searches will soon overtake the number of daily typed searches.

Why is this the moment that voice search is finally breaking through? There are several factors involved. The increased accuracy of voice recognition software has been key. Microsoft’s voice recognition software has improved to the point where it now boasts 95% accuracy, making it equal to human understanding. In conjunction with the software improvements there has been the rise of digital assistants, and in particular the revolution in smart speakers. Smart speakers rely almost entirely on voice commands to let users search or complete tasks. Sales of these devices tripled during 2017 and sales are expected to grow further during 2018 with the Echo Dot already proving to be the best-selling Amazon product at Christmas just gone.

As voice search changes the way people access information the rise of voice search queries will mean changes to the way you promote a business online. When people use voice search they tend to search differently to the way they search when they type.

A typed search could be something like ‘Cinema Dublin’. This search would return several pages of results covering available cinemas in Dublin. Voice searches are more conversational and a typical search would probably be more like “cinema near me”. Having tested this just now via “OK Google” on my phone in Dublin 4, gives me the title, genre and thumbnail of what Google understood and converted to “films near dublin” – which is useful. (Try saying ‘Beam me up Scotty’ to ‘OK Google’ and let me know how you get on!)

These differences between voice and typed search are going to be central to the way search evolves and the way businesses must adapt to keep their company at the top of the listings over the next few years.

Forming a Pattern

The adoption of more conversational search patterns will lead to a focus on more long-tail keywords and a higher emphasis on topics rather than individual generic keywords. Producing content that specifically answers the conversational questions your users ask will lead to improved exposure rather than creating pages that focus on a general keyword or phrase.

While conversational search offers new opportunities to engage with an audience, the fact search is becoming audio only, and will be limited to only the top one or two results or even the ‘most relevant’ result means that the battle for top position can only get more intense. It may be that your limited resources would be better invested by narrowly focusing your efforts to ensure you achieve the top ranked position for one or two specific phrases rather than spreading your efforts two thin and achieving ‘first page’ prominence on many keywords. It’s top of the listings or failure.

Google Fail

One aspect of voice search that has not yet been fully appreciated is the way that it will bring an increased emphasis on local search along the lines of “films near Dublin” eg above. Voice search is not, at the moment, being used for detailed research purposes. The majority of searches are to find quick answers while the user is engaged in other tasks, often travelling, or when they are seeking contextually relevant information. The growth in locally driven searches can only lead to a greater emphasis in local results from Google. If your business has not yet claimed your ‘Google my business’ slot then you should do so without delay and make sure you use your Eircode. Google seems to be one of the few companies that are finding it useful. These can only become more important as Google searches for relevant local content to present to users.

The challenges adapting to voice search brings take us right back to the beginnings of search engine optimisation. The need is to create quality, compelling, content that answers specific questions. Start each page with a question, and then succinctly answer that question for the first few paragraphs. You can use the rest of the page to expand in greater detail, but you must ensure that you provide a brief, but valuable answer that will attract the attention of Google voice search. You don’t need to change everything today. Voice search isn’t taking over just yet, but it is growing in importance all the time.

John Ring is managing director of Tinderpoint

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ March 2018)© to order back issues please call 016611660